How to Make Your Lousy Academic Talk Even Lousier

Mark Kleiman has railed appropriately at presenters of academic talks who read their slides at the audience.

But you can do even worse: Read your damn slides while facing the slides and having your back to the audience. If you do that for 80 straight mind-numbing minutes, you will not only give a lousy talk, you will not take in the informative feedback you would otherwise get from the majority of the audience leaving the room and almost every other remaining person checking their email or falling asleep.

Or in my case, blogging the horror of your talk.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

24 thoughts on “How to Make Your Lousy Academic Talk Even Lousier”

  1. Just think how much worse it would be if something important, like your grade, depended on learning the material.

  2. This approach is not confined to academic talks. A year or two I attended an annual mass meeting of the IT organization at a government agency, where one of the speakers not only read her slides, and read her slides with her back to the audience, but also read her slides with her back to the microphone. The slides were so busy and projected on such a small screen that I couldn’t see to read them and couldn’t hear her read them. The nature of the meeting was such that I couldn’t walk out without endangering my career. Happy days!

    1. That is called, “Opportunity to nap.” Having been in those sorts of meetings, they are invariably held in cramped, overheated rooms, which makes napping even more inviting.

      Just be sure not to snore.

      1. The meeting was held in a cramped, overheated room, with almost no seating. It’s difficult to nap standing up.

  3. The worst instance of this I ever witnessed was last year, when a job candidate did all of this, and even read out every citation, down to the year of publication. This was an internal candidate who was already in a visiting position with us. Here the pain was in realizing that afterward someone was going to have to convey some bad news.

    1. Oh, I’ve got a better one.

      I was on a search committee where the final candidate did a completely dreadful presentation. It was the wrong talk, delivered to the wrong audience in a completely incomprehensible fashion. The head of the hiring department got up during the talk and walked over to the Dean and said (too loudly, because I heard a couple of seats away), “Let’s move on candidate X.”

  4. I hope this “academic talk” was a talk to academics and not a talk by an academic. If you have a job as an academic you are paid to be a scholar but also an educator.

    1. In theory, an academic should at least be able to educate in addition to studying, unless this is a clever scheme so that the academic is never actually asked to teach a class.

  5. My wife is heading to a conference tomorrow where she’s a discussant. Rather than read the papers on-line, she prints them on used paper (old dissertations, etc.) and reads them on the plane. One bugaboo is that all too many authors neglect to paginate their articles, which is a real PITA when they are inadvertently dropped.

  6. I had a math professor who faced the board as he spoke, wrote with his right hand and erased with his left. I concluded I would do better to read my complex variables text at home and work all problems.

  7. Reading slides (whether facing the audience or not) is far from the nadir of presentation. Far FAR worse is reading your paper to the audience.
    As I have said before, this seems to be especially popular among disciplines that view papers not as the unimportant wrappers which contain useful information, but as artifacts in and of themselves. In other words, is the point the CONTENT (paraphrased) of the paper, or is the point the PAPER ITSELF?
    The culprits here are the suspects you’d expect — the English and other language departments, *-studies, some (mercifully not that much) social science and history.

    The ironic thing here is that it is precisely this viewpoint of the paper as intellectual jewel that makes reading it so deadly. Long sentences, no matter how beautifully constructed, and complex multi-part arguments, no matter how clever, DO NOT WORK when spoken. We all know that written language is very different from spoken language, and these people insist on taking the most written of written language and then reading it (badly). I honestly believe that reading out loud papers that are not purposefully artfully constructed (for example a generic computer science or sociology paper) would actually work vastly better — the sentences are shorter, the arguments more explicit, everything is closer to spoken English.

  8. 1) It is worse when they have set up the slides so that only one line is revealed at a time. You don’t get to read ahead and have any time to think about the content — rather, you must follow their schedule to the second. I see this all the time.

    2) The worst I ever saw was a class taught out of someone else’s book (Bob McEliece’s error-correcting codes book). The book had been xeroxed directly onto transparencies, and the lecturer was reading them aloud. At 8 AM. In the sub-basement. The only value added was, where the book said “The 2 in the top of the second column of the array”, the lecturer could point to the 2. I wasn’t in that class long.

  9. Skill at public oration shouldn’t have to be a requirement for academic work. I’ve never understood this desire to give & receive ‘talks’ as a way to convey information. I’ve never liked attending them and I detested giving them when I was in grad school. Just give me the paper and directions to other relevant sources and let me absorb it at my own pace when it’s convenient for me. A Q&A doesn’t have to be preceded by a presentation.

    I dunno. The expectation of doing presentations for your work smacks of extraverts inadvertently imposing their preferences upon introverts. I wonder how many of these awful presenters actually volunteered to do them?

    1. I think that a lot of this is actually tradition. Remember that there was a time when there were no personal computers or cheap laser printers; heck, it wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t even have photocopiers. In these days, presenting your ideas at a blackboard (obviously, overhead projectors didn’t exist back then, either) was one of the better ways to disseminate information to an interested audience.

      These days, different people still absorb information differently. Some prefer the written word, others the spoken word. LIke you, I have a much easier time digesting a written paper than an oral presentation, even if the speaker is skilled. I still may find a good presentation helpful in providing a “big picture” view that I may first have to excavate from a densely written paper otherwise. But there are also many people for whom it is exactly the other way round.

      That said, I find that oral presentations do generally have considerable downsides for me. There’s no rewind button, so I really need to focus without pause for half an hour straight on what the speaker is saying, or I may get lost and not recover for a time [1]; if the speaker does not speak English natively, the accent may present an additional challenge. This is also why it doesn’t bother me if there’s some redundancy between what the speaker is saying and what’s on the slides, and why I really dislike Lessig-style slides that convey little or no useful information and are merely a backdrop to the talk, requiring me to rely almost exclusively on the spoken word. I do indeed prefer someone reading slides aloud to that kind of presentation; it may feel inartistic, but I’ll take intelligibility over style.

      If I have to be honest, though: When attending a conference these days, I usually listen to the talk only for the first couple of slides to get an idea of where the paper is going, and then I’ll load it up on my laptop and read it there. I’m often finished reading before the talk is over and I have a much deeper understanding afterwards.

      [1] It does not help that I work in a field at the intersection of computer science and mathematics, where information is often unavoidably dense and interdependent.

  10. At my job talk at the university of Chicago, I tripped over the power cord and killed the power to my powerpoint. A collective gasp went up in the audience. I was forced to deliver the remainder of my (epidemiological moldeling) talk at the chalkboard. It went 100% better, and I got the job.

  11. One of the most extraordinary illustrations of the power of plain oratory – wihno audiovisual aids at all – was the quelling of a mutiny in AD 43 by four Roman legions encamped at Boulogne, which had superstitiously refused to embark on the invasion ships.
    Claudius’s Greek freedman Narcissus, facing 40,000 heavily armed and frightened soldiers, turned them round: apparently using humour, as the troops were shamed by the courage of a despised Greek and ex-slave, and boarded the ships shouting “Io Saturnalia!”: the Saturnalia being the topsy-turvy festival in which slaves became masters for a day.

  12. Whew! Glad I’m a city planner, for whom windowless conference sessions in exciting locales mostly can be blown off in favor of learning about cities by examining an unfamiliar one firsthand.

  13. Back when I took Advanced Auditing each group had to do a significant case study that included both a paper and a presentation. I have no recollection of how it got started, maybe just the first group of presenters doing it and everyone else followed, but all of the Power Point shows had a framing device that was somehow related to the professor. One included mocking his Packer fandom (since the Vikings had just beaten them), another his John Wayne worship. We went last and, in a tribute to his stories about his daughter, ours was presented by the Disney Princesses, complete with both art and quotes.

    I think that it started as a joke but I also came away with the idea that they were more comprehensible than presentations in other classes.

  14. What was that thing again that General Stanley McChrystal said after such a presentation in Afghanistan? 😉

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